Meeting set on VA rest area closings

The public can comment Tuesday on proposed cuts in highway spending that would close all four rest areas on Interstate 81 in Southwest Virginia, shutter a handful of maintenance and equipment centers and reduce care of roadsides.

Tuesday’s meeting offers the public a chance to have a say on the third and final phase of a massive cost-cutting plan triggered by drops in state and federal transportation funding to support the Virginia Department of Transportation.

The cost-cutting targets a diverse category of activities that keep Virginia’s roads open during storms, the roadsides well-groomed, litter and dead animals picked up and rest areas clean and operating.

To ensure safety, officials said, snow and ice clearance, incident response, signs, striping, lighting, and the care of pavement, bridges and tunnels will continue.

But the state that pushes tourism is prepared to do less for aesthetics and motorist comfort.

In June, VDOT officials intend to give the Commonwealth Transportation Board a budget that would set in motion specific service cuts which, if approved, will take effect July 1.

The statewide mowing budget could fall by about half to $20 million, under the proposal. Twenty-five of 41 of the agency’s popular rest areas (including all four in the Roanoke and New River valleys) could be closed. And the state intends to spend less on the roving troubleshooters known as safety patrols who completed some 123,200 assists last year, 4,173 of them in Southwest Virginia in 2008.

Before completing the plan, David Ekern, VDOT commissioner, said officials want to hear from the public at 11 comment sessions to be held across the state.

The first will be 6 p.m. Tuesday at Northside Middle School, 6810 Northside High School Road in Roanoke County. Ekern and Richard Caywood, Salem District administrator, are expected to be present.

Tourism advocates, truckers and motorists want the rest stops to stay open.

“They provide a safe place to park, socialize with friends and families, as well as pick up information about the many assets, attractions and visitor services of the commonwealth,” Megan Svajda, spokeswoman for the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association, said in a statement.

Del. Dave Nutter, R-Christiansburg, said he’s been told the truck parking spaces available at roadside businesses and truck stops are inadequate to make up for the spaces that would be lost if rest stops close, he added.

How many commercial truck parking spaces are there? Many, a VDOT study found.

Businesses within one mile of an I-81 interchange between Dublin and Botetourt County in Southwest Virginia offer纝 truck parking spaces, compared with 58 at the four rest stops that are pegged for closing, agency spokeswoman Heidi Coy said.

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